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Alcohol Regulation Roundup: March 13, 2012

Apparently, "March Madness" has stricken our state legislators who are in high gear introducing and considering proposed alcohol laws. There's so much going on, in fact, that the below is just a sampling of some of the best, most interesting, or odd alcohol-related news stories for the February/March roundup. If you're interested, a more comprehensive study of alcohol taxes and/or laws can be found at the Brewers Association and The American Beverage Institute websites, among other places.

Alabama: On Tuesday, February 21, SB 294 was narrowly passed by the Alabama Senate with a vote of 14 to 13. It has been coined the "Gourmet Bottle Bill" by supporters of Free the Hops, who were responsible for the 2009 legislation. It still needs to make it through the Alabama House of Representatives before becoming law. The bill would raise the size limit on bottles and cans of beer from 16 ounces to 25.4 ounces (750 milliliters), making available in our state a number of extraordinary beers that currently may not be sold here.

Arizona: A referendum was filed with the Arizona Secretary of State that would raise the taxes on alcoholic beverages. Supporters say the increase is needed to fund alcoholism-related social programs. Arizona currently taxes beer at 16 cents a gallon; the new tax would increase the amount to a dollar per barrel, which would result in an increase of 9 cents per can of beer. The tax would also increase wine taxes by 20 cents per bottle -- currently wine is taxed at 84 cents a gallon.

Connecticut: The fun never stops in the discussion of updating Connecticut’s alcohol laws. Governor Dannel Malloy’s proposal includes legalizing Sunday sales, increase hours of operation, do away with price minimums, allow more large package stores and some convenience stores sell alcohol. Of course, not everyone is excited about entering the 21st century.

Also in Connecticut, two bills under consideration would liberalize laws regarding brewers. An Act Concerning Competitive Alcoholic Liquor Pricing and Hours of Operation for Permittees would “ allow breweries to “sell their craft beer to wholesalers, produce beer brewed under contract and sell it back to brewery clients in and out of state, offer visitor tours with a sample of their product, sell a glass of beer to visitors to enjoy, or sell beer by the package to customers to share at home.”

Louisiana: A New Orleans councilwoman has proposed legislation that would ban anyone under the age of 21 from entering a bar. While her intentions are certainly to prevent underage drinking, many have complained that the new law would prevent those under 21 from participating in the vibrant music scene.

Maryland: There’s a bill in the House this legislative session that, if it passes, could allow more establishments in Baltimore to be able to offer growlers. HB 401 which was introduced in February by Delegates McHale, Clippinger, and Hammen awaits a vote in the House Economic Matters Committee. A companion piece of legislation in the state Senate, SB 874 was approved in March.

Minnesota: Pete Rifakes the owner of Town Hall Brewery wants state law changed to allow him to distribute his award-winning brew to liquor stores and restaurants. While last year's so-called Surly Bill changed the law allowing breweries to add tap rooms and restaurants to sell beer on-site, current state law does not allow brewpubs to sell their beer through distributors to other restaurants and liquor stores for off-premise consumption. Rifakes is working with a state law firm to come up with draft legislation that will hopefully remedy the situation in the next legislative year.

Mississippi: As I reported in my last roundup, bills are making their way through the state Senate and House that would finally raise the current limit on the amount of alcohol in beer from 5- to 8-percent alcohol by weight (ABW) as well as allowing Mississippians to brew their own beer -- which is still prohibited in only Alabama and Mississippi. The good news is that one of the bills, HB 1422 passed on the first of March. Unfortunately it was held on a motion to reconsider. If makes it past the second vote it will go onto the Senate and then off to the Governor for approval or veto.

Also in Mississippi a House Bill 1029, which passed last month could allow breweries to give out free samples along with a brewery tour. The bill limits samples to 6 ounces and says a brewery can't give out more than six samples in one day. At the moment, the bill would only affect one brewery -- the state’s only -- Magnolia Brewing Co. But with all of these potentially liberating bills being discussed there might be more in the future.

Nebraska: is trying to outlaw cheap booze. Bill 978 would prohibit retailers from selling beer at a price lower than they paid to get the beer on their shelves. Small liquor store owners complained that large chain stores were under-charging alcohol in order to draw in customers (who then buy much more of their other products to make up for the loss). State Sen. Russ Karpisek, who introduced the bill, believes that preventing undercharging will create a level playing field while large chain grocery stores say the free market should set the price to the benefit of consumers.

New Hampshire: Has a deluge of alcohol laws in the hopper. HB 1172 would allow licensed nanobreweries (those that brew less than 2,000 barrels a year) to sell their products at farmers’ markets.

House Bill 1411 would create a committee to study the relationship between craft brewers and distributors to see if current state of the law “allows sufficient flexibility for small breweries, or microbreweries, to compete in the New Hampshire market.”

House Bill 1208 loosens state prohibitions on alcohol advertising. Current law restricts manufacturers, distributors, and vendors of alcohol from "promoting the consumption promoting the consumption of alcohol" in almost all publications, from newspaper circulars, brochures, "or other similar publication published by, for, or in behalf of any religious, fraternal, educational, patriotic, social, or civic group." HB 1208 would amend the law by striking out most of the prohibitions, but adding a line that restrictions will remain for advertising consumption of alcohol in publications that are predominantly distributed to people under the age of 21.

New Jersey: Proposed laws in New Jersey would update the state’s alcohol laws, allowing local brewpubs to brew more and sell their beer to wholesalers for off-site purchasing. Senate Bill 641 and Assembly Bill 1277 would let brewpubs make up to 10,000 barrels a year (up from just 3,000 barrels). The bills would also allow brewpubs to have 10 locations instead of the two locations they are currently limited to.

The bills would also benefit microbreweries who, if they pass, would allow the breweries to sell beer on-site.

New York: Companion bills pending in the legislature would allow small brewers (those producing less than 300k barrels a year) to terminate contracts with their wholesalers, provided that they are 3 percent or less of the wholesalers annual business. Assembly Bill 8962 and Senate Bill 1315 would require the brewers to pay a fee to the wholesaler unless the termination was for just cause.

Also in New York, Governor Cuomo has proposed legislation that would create a new license for producers. “Farm Brewer Licensees would allow brewers and wineries to each other’s products at their retail outlets as well as hosting on-site tastings.

Also in New York: A bi-partisan group of lawmakers are pushing legislation that would legalize wine in grocery stores. Republican Senator Thomas O’Mara and Democrat Senator Liz Krueger introduced the Wine Industry and Liquor Store Revitalization Act in their house, while Democrat Joseph Morelle has a companion bill in the Assembly.

Oklahoma: Following the footsteps of states like California (yeah, that’s who you want to emulate) Oklahoma legislators want to ban alcohol sales through automated check-out lines for fear that minors would have easier access to booze. This is despite the fact that robo-checkout lines require a staffer to check ID if the order contains age-restricted items.

Also in Oklahoma on a happier note, Republican Rep. Colby Schwartz has introduced House Joint Resolution 1015, which would let liquor stores sell corkscrews, bottle openers, stemware, and nonalcoholic mixers -- something they are currently prohibited from doing.

Pennsylvania: Whiskey tastings are officially legal now. A new state law allows small distilleries to give samples to visitors and sell bottles of their spirits directly to the public.

Utah: Utah booze fans will be very busy during the next legislative season, keeping their eyes glued to the numerous proposals to tighten or loosen regulations of alcohol in their state. One bill creates a “clearinghouse” for alcohol abuse statistics and the other creates a committee to study the effects of alcohol laws on public safety and business interests. Discussions of privatization may, once again, be on tap. Of course, nobody is holding their breath for that one.

Also in Utah a proposal would require that at least two members of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission be “drinkers.”

West Virginia: House Bill 3178 seeks to provide funding for substance abuse services through an increase in alcohol excise taxes. For beer, the barrelage tax would be increased from $5.50 to $11.00. The bill would increase the tax on wine from $0.26 per liter to $0.52 per liter.